The Wave of Poseidon?

In 479 BC, the mighty Persian army marched toward the tiny Greek colony of Potidaea. The northern Aegean Sea had mysteriously retreated, making conditions ideal for a siege. Then disaster struck. The sea surged and hundreds of Persian soldiers died. Potidaea was saved, all thanks to a strange event that has come to be known as “The Wave of Poseidon.”

Poseidon holding a trident

Poseidon holding a trident
Attribution: Corinthian plaque, 550–525 BC
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Wave of Poseidon?

“When they had made their way over two-fifths of it, however, and three yet remained to cross before they could be in Pallene, there came a great flood-tide, higher, as the people of the place say, than any one of the many that had been before. Some of them who did not know how to swim were drowned, and those who knew were slain by the Potidaeans, who came among them in boats.” ~ Herodotus, The Histories

Herodotus, like many other ancient Greek historians, considered the wave to be of divine providence. It was the work of Poseidon, the god of the sea. In his infinite wisdom, Poseidon had decided to thrash the Persians and thus, save the villagers of Potidaea.

“The Potidaeans say that the cause of the high sea and flood and the Persian disaster lay in the fact that those same Persians who now perished in the sea had profaned the temple and the image of Poseidon which was in the suburb of the city. I think that in saying that this was the cause they are correct. Those who escaped alive were led away by Artabazus to Mardonius in Thessaly. This is how the men who had been the king’s escort fared.” ~ Herodotus, The Histories

Over time, The Wave of Poseidon became a thing of myth. And indeed, that is how modern historians initially viewed it. But over the last few decades, scholars started to study the event in depth, attempting to find a real life explanation for it. They noticed that Herodotus’s account, which was written ~50 years after the actual event, bore some resemblance to a tsunami. Now, new evidence has emerged to bolster this interpretation.

“We wanted to see if these historical accounts are correct and then try to get an assessment of the coastal areas — are they safe or are they not safe?” ~ Klaus Reicherter, Aachen University

A research team led by Klaus Reicherter recently realized the area’s geological conditions were ripe for a tsunami. The seafloor is shaped like a bathtub. Underwater earthquakes and landslides occur from time to time. Models show a regional tsunami could get as high as 16 feet.

Reicherter also discovered layers of sediment that appear to have been carried inland by massive waves. In addition, they excavated numerous shells in a nearby city, far away from land. A dating analysis indicates the shells landed in the soil around 500 BC, give or take 20-30 years.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Many historians view historical accounts of magic and divine intervention as pure myth. But we here at Guerrilla Explorer tend to think many of these strange stories have real-life roots. It appears we can now add The Wave of Poseidon to this category. Interestingly enough, if the tsunami had happened a few decades later, it might have never achieved its mythical status. About fifty years later, in 426 BC, the Greek historian Thucydides became the first person in recorded history to speculate that earthquakes, and not some ancient god, were behind massive waves.

“The cause, in my opinion, of this phenomenon must be sought in the earthquake. At the point where its shock has been the most violent the sea is driven back, and suddenly recoiling with redoubled force, causes the inundation. Without an earthquake I do not see how such an accident could happen.” ~ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

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